Last fall, six days after Israel signed a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority, a Palestinian terrorist tried to blow up an Israeli school bus. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faulted Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for failing to stop the bomber and, prodded by outraged Israeli hawks, began stalling the agreement to death. This week, two days after Arafat and Israel’s new prime minister, Ehud Barak, signed another deal, terrorists struck again. This time, Israel’s minister of justice vouched for Arafat’s “commitment to fighting terror” and urged Israelis to stand with Arafat in “a coalition of sane people versus the opponents of peace.”
The words coming out of the Middle East these days are as revolutionary as the deeds. Barak and his deputies are not merely changing Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. They are trying to redefine and reconfigure the whole conflict. Where Netanyahu saw a struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, Barak perceives a struggle between those who support the peace process and those who oppose it. In this configuration, Palestinian militants are allies not of the Palestinian Authority but of Israeli extremists, and terrorism against Israel is a reason for more collaboration with Arafat, not less.
Israeli hawks, invoking the old configuration, blamed this week’s attacks on “the Palestinians” in general. They accused Barak of betraying Israel and demanded that he suspend the new agreement. But Barak’s aides, while affirming that “no peace process shall prevail over the personal security of the people of Israel,” rejected the premise that the former threatened the latter. They denied that peace talks were a “zero-sum game,” and they dismissed the Israeli right’s equation of terrorism with the Palestinian Authority. “We can’t blame the Palestinian Authority every time there’s a terror incident,” argued Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh.
From Barak’s perspective, the latest bombings were an attack not on Israel but on the peace process. “There are elements who are very determined to disrupt the process through terror and murder. We won’t let them,” Sneh vowed. “We cannot dance to the tune of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.” Barak’s minister of industry sketched a symbiotic relationship between Palestinian bombers and Israeli hawks, warning Israeli rightists to “refrain from the kind of fiery rhetoric they used in the past, which only encourages the terrorists.” Conversely, Israel’s chief of military intelligence suggested that the Palestinian Authority recognized terrorism as a threat to its interests. Barak and his aides proposed a “joint Israeli-Palestinian fist” against terrorism and reaffirmed that Israel’s “Palestinian partners” were fulfilling their “commitment to fight against terrorist acts.”
Palestinian and Israeli Arab officials reciprocated this spin, reiterating their “policy of zero tolerance for terror” and declaring the bombers their enemies. Arafat pointed out that his police had arrested numerous terrorist suspects and confiscated weapons. “Someone who sends a car bomb today is trying to destroy the hopes of the Palestinian people,” a Palestinian official declared. One Arab member of Israel’s parliament charged that the bombers sought “the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.” Another asserted that Israeli Arabs and Jews shared a commitment to “the law and the democratic rules of the game. Whoever carried out [the bombings] is enemy number one of the Arab community.”
Having defined the conflict this way, Palestinian officials suggested that Israel’s best means of defeating terrorism was to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority. They accused the “enemies of peace” of staging attacks “aimed at destroying the entire peace process.” “The answer to anyone who tries to undermine the peace process is that we are determined to continue,” proclaimed senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs–everyone in the region has paid so much in the absence of peace. It’s time for reconciliation.”
The new configuration is beginning to take hold in the Israeli media. “Barak, Arafat to cooperate in probe of bombings,” announced Monday’s Jerusalem Post. “Barak: Car bombs will not derail process,” added Ha’aretz, juxtaposing Arafat with “anti-peace Palestinians.” Op-ed writers cautioned against “a self-defeating freeze on the peace process,” called Arafat a “partner” in the “fight against terrorism,” and observed that “Israeli terrorists”–namely, mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein and assassin Yigal Amir–had staged attacks “aimed at halting the peace process.” Borrowing the language of war, the Post called the latest bombings “the first test of [Barak’s] resolve to march toward the final status agreement ‘uninterrupted.’ “
The American press, too, is adopting this pro-peace/anti-peace analysis of the conflict. “The explosions will give ammunition to Israel’s right wing,” predicted the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times reported that “terrorism” was once again challenging the “Israeli-Palestinian relationship.” The Washington Post, inferring that the bombers sought “to sabotage Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking,” stipulated, “Most Palestinians do not support terror attacks against Israel, which they regard as only impeding progress toward the tangible benefits of peace.”
Framing is a transcendent art. It can serve petty advantage or profound reform. It can be used to achieve goals or to rethink them, to defeat enemies or to reassess them, to win wars or to stop them. “There is a war going on between the peace process and terror” in Israel and the Palestinian territories, political scientist Yaron Ezrhahi told the New York Times. The bombers “are fighting the peace process because they know it promises to kill terror once and for all.” Is Ezrhahi Israeli or Palestinian? The Times didn’t say. And if he’s right, it doesn’t matter.